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Look Away a Little Bit

A heavyset woman whose upper arms carried drapes of flesh that could knock you over, Granny Fanny was possessed of an impressive physical stamina. For decades she walked miles over Fort Hamilton Parkway to play out the genetic code that impelled her to gather the brightest, freshest food around. Asked why she did this, her answer was always the same: “It gives me pleasure.”

But dangers lurked in the streets. If dinosaurs stopped roaming New York City about a million years before, there were other predators around. I was certain that she could stop a truck if I was in danger of even being honked at. When we crossed the streets, in a counter-intuitive move, she actually let go of my hand and made me walk in front of her. Then she would poke me in the back with a strong index finger, an irritant that forced me to walk faster.

“Where are we going now?” I whined. “Aren’t you finished yet?”

“Soon,” she promised. “I’ll get you a Dixie cup when we see an ice cream truck.”

A Dixie cup! How old did she think I was? Dixie cups were for babies. I drank ice cream sodas and spooned sundaes and devoured cones topped with sprinkles. I was very offended and very annoyed. It was the first weekend after school let out. Instead of playing in my street, with my friends, I was staying with my grandparents. My mother had won a prize at a luncheon, a weekend for two at Grossinger’s, a hotel in the Catskill mountains. My parents were in the country having fun. I was on a crusade buying food.

Suddenly, she swerved into a raucous store. It was full of women issuing orders to the white-apron wearing men behind the counter. The room was large, with sawdust on the floor. Behind the noise of the customers and the employees was another sound that even I, city girl, could readily identify. It was the sound of birds and they didn’t sound happy.

Forcing her way to the counter, still holding my hand tight, my grandmother placed her order. “Gimme a nice roasting chicken.” The man behind the counter rolled his eyes. “They’re all nice, lady,” he replied.

“Then gimme the nicest one,” she directed him in a no-nonsense voice.

The man walked behind a dirty curtain and returned holding a squawking chicken in each hand. Then I remembered my mother telling me that my grandmother used to buy live carp to make gefilte fish. The carp swam in the bathtub until their number was up.

Was I going to witness premeditated chicken murder?

Apparently not. My grandmother, after looking over the offered birds, sent them back. Several other birds — they all looked alike to me — made appearances until one was chosen. My grandmother bought chickens the way other women bought shoes. They had to be the right color, the right size and the right price.

Finally, the counterman disappeared behind the curtain again and came back a few minutes later with a headless, plucked chicken. “I used to pluck them myself,” she told me. “But they do a justy-justy job here, so I let them do it.”

Good lord. I wasn’t so naïve to think that chickens arrived in this world wrapped in plastic. However, I couldn’t fathom why my grandmother had to buy her food so close to the source. The sheer schlepitude involved was incredible. She preferred the produce vendors who drove their laden trucks and sold their wares on the street to the offerings in the supermarkets. She walked half a mile to an Italian bakery that sold cream puffs. And of course she frequented the fish market and picked out what she wanted as it swam before her. I once saw her buy a herring and then autopsy it on the kitchen table.